Michigan Bill to Retain Struggling Readers Reignites 3rd Grade Literacy Debate

By Liana Loewus — September 30, 2016 3 min read
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Michigan is the latest state to consider a law that would retain some students who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.

The bill has passed the state’s House and Senate and is awaiting signature in the governor’s office. Ari Adler, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said in an interview that the governor has been supportive of the 3rd grade reading initiative and is reviewing the final piece of legislation. A decision is expected next week.

Research has shown that students who read significantly below grade level in 3rd grade tend to continue to struggle and are more at risk for dropping out of school entirely.

Under the proposed Michigan law, which would go into effect in 2019-20, 3rd graders who scored more than a grade level behind on the state reading test would not be allowed to start 4th grade. There is, as usual with these sorts of bills, some flexibility. Students can continue to 4th grade if they demonstrate proficiency on an alternative standardized reading assessment or through work samples. Students with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and those who had been previously held back could be exempt as well.

A parent or guardian can also request a “good cause” exemption, and a superintendent can designate a teacher or someone else to grant one. And students who are deemed proficient in all other subject areas can move onto 4th grade and receive continued support in reading.

The bill also requires districts to take other preliminary steps to improve student reading, including giving teachers professional development, assessing students throughout the year, and providing intervention programs for struggling readers.

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring 3rd graders be held back if they don’t meet reading proficiency standards. (See above chart, last updated May 2015.)

In light of the Michigan bill, Brian A. Jacob, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, looked at the effectiveness of such policies on student outcomes. He wrote that, “compared with peers who have progressed normally through early grades, students who repeat a grade during elementary school tend to have notably worse outcomes.” However, he notes that there is selection bias—that students who are held back tend to have other disadvantages as well.

But studies that compare students who fall just above the cutoff for retention with those who fall just below—i.e., students who are ostensibly quite similar in their reading ability—"also do not find significant and lasting benefits” for retention, he wrote. “Several studies find that retention is associated with short-term improvements in standardized test scores, but these seem to fade within several years.” And the studies don’t show any positive (or negative) effects on high school completion, either, he writes.

Only about 45 percent of 3rd graders in Michigan met the reading proficiency standard in 2016. That means that “nearly 60,000 children in the state would have been subject to retention had the policy been in place last year,” Jacob writes. (There were about 111,000 3rd graders in the state’s public schools last school year.)

But it’s worth noting that these retention policies are often much more complicated than they at first seem.

For example, some districts inevitably interpret the requirements and exemptions with more leeway than others. In Florida, some districts are threatening to hold back 3rd grade students whose parents opted them out of state testing, while others are letting those students prove proficiency through alternative means.

Last year, I looked at North Carolina’s literacy law and found that about 14 percent of 3rd graders in the state were considered “retained.” And yet very few of those students actually stayed back in 3rd grade. The law allowed them to receive hybrid 3rd/4th instruction or take a 4th grade class with remediation.

The Michigan bill doesn’t have those same allowances, but it does have plenty of exemptions. So how many students would really be retained if the governor signs the bill into law very much remains to be seen.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.